“Anna, do you have any articles that touch on behavioral euthanasia?”
It’s from a question about a rescue horse in trouble. Initially, things went well enough but now there is unusual pasture activity, unprovoked aggression toward other horses, and the issues continue to escalate. A horrible fit of extreme bucking resulted in the rider not being hurt too badly, this time, but seemed to leave the horse strangely shaken. There have been dental checks, a chiropractor, and repeated vet visits. No expense has been spared, all ideas exhausted, and the horse continues to struggle. Two vets support the idea of behavioral euthanasia.
Euthanizing for reasons of behavior is more commonly talked about in the dog world (here is a good blog on it) and I’ve written about a hard decision I made on a two-year-old Corgi rescue. Heartbreaking but maybe more understandable for dogs? It’s a question that comes up for our horse rescue organization from time to time and it requires serious consideration for each horse, each time. It’s always the last resort.
Is behavioral even the right word? Is the horse doing something that can be untrained? Keep in mind that the only way a horse has to tell us he’s in pain is with his behavior. Normal horses don’t exhibit extreme behaviors for no reason. It’s always pain of some kind. Add on top that this is a rescue horse with an unknown history.
Most rescue horses work out just fine, given up for innocent reasons; their owner died or couldn’t afford them. No harm. Some come to rescue with bad habits that good trainers straighten out and the horses go on to be valued in new homes. Most rescue placements are positive for both sides.
But the extreme minority may show issues that can’t seem to be righted. Perhaps a horse has a degenerative condition that hasn’t been diagnosed but has progressed now. Neglect can damage organs and bad training can cause mental instability. Or maybe there is a perfect storm of issues that add up to a mess impossible to separate. I still can’t feel good about calling it behavioral if pain is the motivating factor for the horse. No blame on vets, I’ve lost count of the horses brought to me for training that I was certain were having pain or ongoing lameness, only to have the vet say, “Nothing that I can find.” It’s a careful sentence, saying exactly what’s intended. It doesn’t mean the horse is sound or pain-free. Then the owner has a choice, to go further with other vets and more testing, or try to manage as long as possible.
Can a horse have a mental disorder? Perhaps a chemical imbalance, or could a horse have a mental disability? How much do we not know about these questions?
Then, can we talk about the unspeakable? How much money is too much? May I be the unromantic voice of reason? Some of us will spend as much on a lameness issue as others of us make in a year. Do you have a small herd? Can you risk their ongoing welfare on one horse? I will never say that a competition horse is worth more than a rescue, but it’s never the responsibility of the owner to go into profound debt, no matter the horse. You don’t need to apologize, you took a horse in and you probably will again. When it’s time to make a decision based partly on finances, there is no shame. Because all the money in the world can’t heal what has gone beyond our knowledge.
It’s about now that a railbird lets you know you are a quitter. It’s a friend who tells you she would never give up, never euthanize, that it’s always the wrong answer. This person is not your friend. For the depths you have gone to for this horse, let this superficial twit who knows everything float away on her own chatter. Railbirds exist to challenge our integrity, at the expense of their own. No one knows what you know; no one can do more for your horse than you, as much as you wish it. Walk away.
Can you rehome the horse? Please don’t. You got lucky so far, you haven’t been hurt badly. Your dog is still alive. Knowing how hard it is for a horse to go to a new home, are you certain that it won’t make him worse? That it hasn’t happened to your horse a couple of times already.
What if he falls into the wrong hands; what if he must prove himself “not right” again and again? But the next time, what if he hurts himself badly? Can you live with yourself if he hurts another person? Maybe that place won’t have the meager money you have for vet bills and he might be left to fend for himself, maybe a grinding death through painful and slow starvation. Considering that, would he be lucky to land on a truck to Mexico? What if all the possibilities are dark and sad and his pain is the only bright-hot moan in the night?
There are so many things are worse than death, if horses even think about it. They live in the moment so there’s little equine philosophizing. It’s always our issue, and wrong to let our perceptions get in the way of a horse’s reality. What do we know? If this horse was in the wild, it’s possible that predators would have resolved this question long ago, with his understanding.
For domestically owned horses, we have to become the kind predator. Amid the loud jangling din of all sides, the endless worry and the wish for a better solution, in some quiet corner of your mind, you know. At a still time of the day, the sunset may remind you that the circle of life can appear to die but circle around back again, unbroken. You don’t have to stop loving him to stop his suffering.
It takes no special skill to love a horse, but to do it well will eventually break your heart. And make you stronger for your next horse because that’s what it means to not quit.